Hardy Hibiscus for Florida Landscapes1

Gary W. Knox and Rick Schoellhorn 2

Hardy hibiscus are an overlooked group of perennials with tremendous potential for the landscape. Hardy hibiscus are herbaceous perennial members of the genus Hibiscus. They are large-flowered, fast-growing plants reaching up to 15 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide. They are close relatives of the tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) seen commonly in the landscapes of southern and central Florida. Unlike their tropical counterparts, however, hardy hibiscus are much more cold hardy, vigorous, and long lasting, and they have larger flowers.

In north and central Florida, these plants emerge from the ground in mid-to-late spring and bloom from late spring through fall. With the exception of some of the herbaceous species, a hard freeze kills the aboveground growth but below-ground stems overwinter and produce new shoots the following spring. Some species require freezing (chilling hours) to release vigorous new growth making them better suited for north and central Florida than for south Florida. Hardy hibiscus prefer full sun or partial shade and any soil that is not too dry. Hardy hibiscus are especially useful in areas where the soil is too wet for other perennials. In the landscape, they are often used as colorful, flowering specimen plants, as borders, or as taller components of perennial gardens. Many are well suited to semi aquatic conditions and can be a great way to plant marshy areas that are otherwise maintenance problems. Some, such as swamp rosemallow (H. grandiflorus), are salt tolerant and are very adaptable to coastal areas. Hardy hibiscus is the perfect centerpiece plant in large mixed containers or planted alone. The bigger the container, the bigger the impact it makes.

Hardy Hibiscus Species

Many hardy hibiscus are native to Florida and the southeastern United States, including comfortroot (Hibiscus aculeatus), scarlet rosemallow (H. coccineus), swamp rosemallow (H. grandiflorus), halberdleaf rosemallow (H. laevis), and crimsoneyed rosemallow (H. moscheutos). These species are worthy of landscape use in their own right. Swamp rosemallow has rich, fuzzy gray-green leaves on a plant that reaches up to 15 feet in height. This species is salt tolerant and can grow in brackish water directly in the tidal zones. Flowers of H. grandiflorus are about 8 to 10 inches across and a clear, soft pink. Flowers of scarlet rosemallow are most commonly a clear red with petals that do not overlap, but the range of forms and closely related species will vary a lot.

Many non-native Hibiscus species are used similarly to native hardy hibiscus, and non of the non-natives mentioned are invasive in Florida (https://assessment.ifas.ufl.edu/). Confederate rose, Hibiscus mutabilis, is an old-fashioned garden plant of the southern United States. This upright, tree like species grows up to 15 feet high and 10 feet wide in freeze-free areas of south and central Florida. In north Florida, heights of 6 to 8 feet are more common due to the annual hard freezes. Large-leaved and coarse-textured, confederate rose begins flowering in late summer, producing 6-to-8inch blooms that open white and fade to pink. One of its most notable features is that white, light-pink, and dark-pink flowers can be found at the same time on any given plant. The most common form is 'Flora Plena' with double flowers. A closely related species, H. paramutabilis, and its cultivar, 'Rubra', are smaller-statured plants (usually 4 to 6 feet in height) with single intense deep-pink to carmine blooms.

Other hardy hibiscus species are grown for food or fiber as well as ornament. African rosemallow (Hibiscus acetosella) has become popular as a foliage color annual in plantings around the United States. H. sabdariffa is a food plant with the common names of roselle, Jamaica sorrel, and Florida cranberry. The main edible part is the fleshy sepal, called a calyx, that surrounds the fading flower and developing seed capsule. The ornamental calyx is bright red and acid and is used to make tea, juice, jelly, or a cranberry-like sauce.

Commercial Hybrids

Crimsoneyed rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) and several other species have been used extensively in breeding programs. These hybrids produce spectacular flowers up to 12 inches across in shades of white, pink, and red. Recent breeding programs are supplanting older cultivars such as 'Disco Belle Mix' and 'Southern Belle' with more vigorous cultivars such as those in the Summerific® series as well as other recent, trademarked and patented cultivars. These newer cultivars tend to grow smaller and more compact than the species. The Luna™ series is exceptionally dwarf and available as a seed-produced crop, while others like the 'Vintage' series are produced only by cuttings and offer new tones of deep cerise on dwarf plants. Some cultivars, such as 'Red Shield' and 'Kopper King', have been selected for their foliage.

Characteristics of Hardy Hibiscus

Characteristics of selected hardy hibiscus previously evaluated in north Florida are listed in Tables 1 and 2. Other commercial cultivars include 'Anne Arundel', 'Cerise', 'Cranberry Punch'™, 'Crimson Wonder', 'Crown Jewels', 'Davis Creek', 'Flare', 'Giant Maroon', 'Pink Clouds', 'Plum Crazy', 'Raspberry Rose', 'Red Flyer', 'Robert Fleming', 'Royal Gems', 'Sweet Caroline', and many others.

Care of Hardy Hibiscus in the Garden

The major insect pest of hardy hibiscus is the caterpillar-like larva of the hibiscus sawfly, Atomacera decepta. Several of these larvae often feed on the same leaf or plant and can quickly defoliate the entire plant. Other pests include whiteflies, mealy bugs, grasshoppers and spider mites. The primary diseases are various leaf spots caused by Cladosporium, Cercospora, Phyllosticta, and other fungi.

Figure 1. Comfortroot, Hibiscus aculeatus.
Figure 1.  Comfortroot, Hibiscus aculeatus.

Figure 2. Hibiscus© Blue River II©.
Figure 2.  Hibiscus© Blue River II©.

Figure 3. Hibiscus cannabinus.
Figure 3.  Hibiscus cannabinus.

Figure 4. Scarlet rosemallow, Hibiscus coccineus.
Figure 4.  Scarlet rosemallow, Hibiscus coccineus.

Figure 5. Neches River rosemallow, Hibiscus dasycalyx.
Figure 5.  Neches River rosemallow, Hibiscus dasycalyx.

Figure 6. Hibiscus© Disco Belle©.
Figure 6.  Hibiscus© Disco Belle©.

Figure 7. Hibiscus© Fantasia©.
Figure 7.  Hibiscus© Fantasia©.

Figure 8. Hibiscus© Fireball©.
Figure 8.  Hibiscus© Fireball©.

Figure 9. Swamp rosemallow, Hibiscus grandiflorus.
Figure 9.  Swamp rosemallow, Hibiscus grandiflorus.

Figure 10. Hibiscus© Lady Baltimore©.
Figure 10.  Hibiscus© Lady Baltimore©.

Figure 11. Halberdleaf rosemallow, Hibiscus laevis.
Figure 11.  Halberdleaf rosemallow, Hibiscus laevis.

Figure 12. Hibiscus© Lord Baltimore©.
Figure 12.  Hibiscus© Lord Baltimore©.

Figure 13. Hibiscus mutabilis Rubra.
Figure 13.  Hibiscus mutabilis Rubra.

Figure 14. Hibiscus© Super Rose©.
Figure 14.  Hibiscus© Super Rose©.

Figure 15. Hibiscus Turn of the Century
Figure 15.  Hibiscus Turn of the Century

Figure 16. Crimsoneyed rosemallow, Hibiscus moscheutos
Figure 16.  Crimsoneyed rosemallow, Hibiscus moscheutos

Tables

Table 1. 

Characteristics of native or species forms of hardy hibiscus previously evaluated at UF/IFAS facilities.

Species/Cultivar

Common Name

Flower Color

Habit

H. acetosella

African rosemallow

Yellow

Upright

H. aculeatus

Comfortroot

Yellow

Spreading

H. coccineus

Scarlet rosemallow

Red

Very Upright

H. dasycalyx

Neches River rosemallow

White

Mounding

H. grandiflorus

Swamp rosemallow

Light pink with red eye

Very Upright

H. laevis

Halberdleaf rosemallow

Pink with red eye

Upright

H. moscheutos

Crimsoneyed rosemallow

White or pink with red eye

Upright

H. mutabilis Flora Plena

Flora Plena Confederate rose, Flora Plena Dixie rosemallow

White, fading to pink

Very Upright

H. paramutabilis Rubra

Rubra Confederate rose, Rubra Dixie rosemallow

Deep pink cerise

Upright

H. sabdariffa

Roselle, Jamaica sorrel, Florida cranberry

yellow

Mounding

Table 2. 

Characteristics of hardy hibiscus cultivars previously evaluated at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy, FL.

Cultivar

Flower Color

Plant Habit

Blue River II

White

Mounding

Bordeaux

Red

Compact

Chablis

White

Compact

Cherry Brandy

Red

Compact

Cranberry Punch® (also known as 'Whit Xx')

Deep red

Compact

Disco Belle Red

Red

Upright

Fantasia

Pink with red eye

Mounding

Fireball

Red

Upright

Jazzberry Jam

Deep magenta with a red eye; edges of petals are ruffled

Upright

Kopper King

Pink with red eye (foliage is burgundy)

Upright

Lord Baltimore

Red

Upright

Luna Red

Red

Compact

Luna Swirl

"Pinwheel" appearance due to each petal shading from pink to white

Compact

Moy Grande

Rose red

Upright

Old Yella

Creamy white with red eye

Upright

Peppermint Flare

Flowers open light pink and age to white; distinctive bands of red flecking down the center of each petal

Mounding

Pinot Grigio

White with blush pink along the outer petal edges; red eye

Compact

Plum Crazy

Dark lavender-pink with a deep red eye; petals have ruffled edges

Upright

Southern Belle

"Pinwheel" appearance due to each petal shading from pink to white

Upright

Sultry Kiss

Rose red

Mounding

Summer Storm (also known as SUMMERIFIC™)

Pink with red eye

Mounding

Super Rose

Rose pink

Mounding

Sweet Caroline

Pink with dark pink eye; edges of petals are ruffled

Upright

Turn of the Century

"Pinwheel" appearance due to each petal shading from red to white

Upright

Footnotes

1. This document is ENH999, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date October 2005. Revised June 2011, June 2017 and April 2020. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
2. Gary W. Knox, Extension specialist and professor, Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center; and Rick Schoellhorn, former floriculture Extension specialist and associate professor, Environmental Horticulture Department; UF/IFAS Extension Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #ENH999

Date: 2020-12-13
Knox, Gary W
Environmental Horticulture
North Florida REC-Quincy

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